Tipping points and a path to more effective mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

In a recent JAMA psychiatry paper, Boston University researchers described a very effective strategy for helping depressed, overwhelmed low-income young women engage in active problem solving. In just six 45 minute one-on-one sessions, the women learned how to discuss the daily “sticky points” in their lives and then, as the lead author described, “go through a step-by-step process that involves taking big problems and boiling them down to little problems.” In a randomized study, the women who had learned these active problem solving strategies experienced a 40% reduction in symptoms of depression, including feeling less sad and experiencing fewer sleep problems. And, as the problem-solving strategies were learned and practiced, they became self-reinforcing and were applied to new situations. In another example, those assigned to Connected Scholars, an intervention that targets first-generation’s students’ tendency to avoid help seeking, evidenced better end-of-year grades and indicators of social engagement than those assigned to a regular academic program (Schwartz et al., 2017). Importantly, because these and other interventions target the actual processes that lead to difficulties, the skills can be practiced, reinforced, and applied to new situations (i.e., they are recursive) (Walton, 2014).

This notion of a recursive processes has implications for the more common experience of being paired with a mentor. The traditional “friendship” model mentoring introduces youth to supportive adults who offer new experiences, companionship, and fun. But the model is not designed to target the specific, problematic psychological and social processes that give rise to problems and, since it is built around time-limited experiences, there is the risk of disappointment and loss when it ends (Grossman et al., 2012). In a qualitative study of the traditional friendship model (Dolan et al., 2010), a project director described how  “the emphasis is on spending time together, having fun. I think if you kept using the word ‘mentor’ to a young person, the fun would be sucked right out of it and they’d look at it as an after-school program or something that they have to do. We really try and put the emphasis, even though it is mentoring, on fun and friendship, and that it’s a natural friendship.”

Fair enough, and there is nothing inherently wrong with being a friendly and responsive companion to a young person. Such relationships are nice while they last, but do they really change the underlying circumstances that led youth to be referred to the intervention? Implicit in this approach is the notion that the caring bond itself will lead to a range of positive developmental outcomes. This may be the case for a subset of youth—such as those who needed additional friends or whose lives are so bereft of enjoyable activities that they are depressed. If the former is the case, why not train the volunteer to also provide evidence-based social skills training while hanging out so the youth can continue to develop friendships long after mentoring program is over? If it’s a question of being withdrawn, then encouraging and carefully tracking fun activities and moods (not just with the mentor but between meetings), might be just the thing. Indeed, behavioral activation is a very effective treatment for depression (Jacobson et al, 1996; Lejuez, et al., 2011). But, for everyone else in the program, this friendship approach may miss the mark. Some may be resistant to the friendship itself– rejecting all overtures of the mentor due to past experiences of trauma or neglect. Such youth may benefit from a slower, more intentionally therapeutic “corrective experience,” that lays the foundation for trust that can be transferred to other relationships over time. Still others may simply need preparation for college admissions or summer employment and would benefit from help with the application process and engaging in evidence-based mock interviews  (Hirsch, 2009). The point is that with better upfront assessment  and targeting of the underlying drivers of change, mentoring programs can make a bigger difference.

We may look back on this era of less targeted, intuitive approaches to mentoring with regret that we held so fast to models and practices that were not well supported by the data. Malcolm Gladwell describes a tipping point as a “magic moment” when an idea, trend, or approach “crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” The evidence for more targeted, evidence-based approaches has been piling up. Eventually it will tip scales in that direction.